December 20, 2007

Thou Art God

I chanced upon a mention on Heilein’s Stranger in a Strange Land the other day. I realized I had not thought of this novel in a number of years, certainly not since undertaking the study of Buddhism, though it had had a profound effect on me.

I was a teenager when I read it, just finishing high school or thereabouts. I remember my joy when I first read the famous passage in which the main character, Michael Valentine Smith, asserts confidently to his mentor, Jubal “Though art god!” Jubal is taken aback and hastily attempts to re-explain the concept of God, but Mike is not deterred.

“You grok. Anne groks. I grok. The grasses under my feet grok in happy beauty ... Thou art God...that which groks. Anne is God, I am God. The happy grasses are God...Jill is god. All shaping and making and creating together.”

I typed up the entire passage, with both Mike and Jubal’s dialogue, framed it and hung it on the wall of my bedroom. I had at that time passed beyond my rebellious, antagonist atheism and steadied into a skeptical agnosticism. This was by far, in all my life, the best definition for God which I had yet found. (My mother, in her typical way, once raised an eyebrow upon seeing it, but said nothing. My father, having given me the book, never remarked up on nor even thought much about it, I would guess.)

However, I wonder that I have not chanced to think upon it again since my recent philosophical explorations have begun. As a novel, I found it amusing and interesting, but not overly entertaining. It did not make it to the hallowed shelves of our family library which contain the poor batter titles, frayed and falling apart due to the repetition of hands and eyes on pages created by almost annual rereading from my father, brother, and myself. Perhaps in the end it was a little too strange for me, as so many of the famous 1960’s science fiction novels seem to be. The end was an odd non-resolution, the vibe a little too cultish. It is no wonder it spawned The Church of All Worlds.

However much my Midwestern, conservative, Christian baggage causes me to look askance at such things, when I read the words for what they are, both in Heilein’s book and from reviews, fan sites, and the CAW, I cannot help but agree with and, indeed, be inspired by it.

All that groks is god.

December 18, 2007

My Introverted Self

My final review for the Shambhala Mountain Center Kitchen & Dining Hall Project occurred on Friday. Overall, it went extremely well. One interesting thing happened though. Duncan Case, the professor who will be my primary thesis mentor during my final two years of grad school made an interesting comment. He started out by asking how someone could bring the quiet, reserved, sense of calm focus they had just been contemplating in meditation with them to the dining hall. I misunderstood at first and I must admit I sniped at him. (We had spend hours going over this in studio with much misunderstanding and I did not want to go back there.) Actually, I had missed his point altogether. In understanding personality types, there are simply those people who would like to be a bit more private, more shielded – those people who always choose the booth in a corner when they go into a restaurant. How could I provide for them in my design? What kind of shielding device would not interfere with the overall concept?

“Oh, I hadn’t even thought of that,” I admitted.

“Of course not, you’re an extrovert,” Duncan blithely replied.

I was incredulous for a moment before I burst out laughing. “I score so far on the introvert scale it’s scary,” I told him.

“But when your write about it [the experience of dining at Shambhala Mountain Center] you always talk about the community and the conversations and all the people,” he pointed out.

My thoughts paused. It is true, I do that. But that is because it is extraordinary. If that kind of interaction was ordinary, my normal every day, I would not write about it at all. I remark on it because in that place I suddenly feel entirely comfortable exhibiting extroverted tendencies, living a life I can never seem quite comfortable in anywhere else.

I score a little funny on personality tests, sometimes coming up with conflicting results which end up with analysis starting with “Maybe you should take this test again when you’re not so stressed.” When a test asks me what I want to do, what feels natural, what I prefer, I score a complete introvert. When asked what I actually would do in a situation, I score extrovert. When both types of questions show up in a single test the result is usually a computer with a migraine and a psychologist scratching their head.

I remember, distinctly remember, in junior high (back before they invented ‘middle school’) sitting quietly at the lunch table usually in the proximity of the ‘lesser’ clique, but never feeling quite like I belonged there, watching the ‘popular’ clique and wondering about the division. I already well understood the difference between an extrovert and an introvert and which category I fell in. Yet it seemed to me like the popular ones were all extroverts. They all cared about what other people thought and felt, how other people saw them. They seemed to get along better. Teachers and other students liked them. They were included in activities. They would be the ones with the six figure salary and family in a few years. Never would you hear them say (including to themselves) “I don’t care what others think!” while resolutely burying the hurt at being teased. Moreover, they seemed happy, laughing and joking with their friends, not sitting quietly at the end of the bench.

I was resolved. I could do that. I could be that. I could be extroverted.

Well, I can’t, but that’s okay. I actually rather like who I am, I prefer being an introvert, and over the years I have, rather successfully it seems, learned to fake it. I joking reassure my professors and classmates alike “No worries, I can fake confidence really well!” The truth is that it is no joke at all. I can stand and give an animated presentation to a large audience, seemingly extemporaneously. I can chit chat and mingle and make small talk. I can joke and put other people at ease. I can commiserate and empathize. I’ve learned how to ask after others and then to genuinely pay attention to the answers. Basically, I’ve taught myself to care.

Well, it turns I am the poster child for Meyers Briggs INTP (Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiving) according to Wikipedia. Moreover, this gentleman name Keirsey came along and added a temperament sorter and labeled that type “Architect,” which also appears to fit me to a T. How convenient, hey? (I even recently correct someone's grammer, though I tend not to do that in cassual conversation because I have learned people don't like that.)

Here’s the rub, the burning question that popped into by brain out of nowhere last night – am I an introvert because I think I am?

Well, no, I don’t think I am. At least, not according to my mother. According to her, even when I was a very little baby I never wanted to be held, not by her or anyone else. Feed me and put me down, that way my motto apparently, before I was old enough to know what a motto was. On the other hand, both of my parents are introverts. They were never the overbearing type. My mother recently labeled her parenting style “benevolent neglect,” as in, “let them do what they want as long as they are not hurting anything or bothering me too much.” I was not an overscheduled child, that is for sure. It all raises some very interesting points in the Nature/Nurture debate.

But ahoy! More issues! Is this whole line of thought an ego-trip? Am I trying to so diligently label myself and figure out what I am in an attempt to verify that I am in fact at all? Is this a self fulfilling exercise?

Well, the Buddha said to break it down. Am I my eyes? No. Am I my hair? No. Am I my body? No. Am I the question I just typed into my computer? No. I am my introverted nature? No. Am I my architect (future) profession? No. If you took any of these away, would I cease to exist? No. If any of these where all I had left, would I still exist? No. Hmmmm.

I think all I’ve done is gone and confused myself now.

December 13, 2007

Clear Light

A lull. A tiny little bubble of a lull rises into my consciousness. Homework finished with thirty minutes left to sit here in the quiet gallery. Half finished thoughts penetrate, leftovers from a week of obsessive concentration, amputated mid stride to make room for the object on which all depends. That object is still undone, but the final details are beyond my grasp, if only for these next few minutes.

I remember the bicyclist I saw on Tuesday, with skis and ski poles strapped across his back, resolutely peddling frozen city streets. That was funny.

I wonder if my car will thaw by tomorrow morning. In yesterday’s battle between the scraper and the quarter inch sheet of ice for the freedom of my car, the ice won hands down. The scraper is in several small plastic pieces and the car hasn’t moved since Monday. Oh, how I laughed as each little piece of plastic went arcing away, at the absurdity of it all.

I recall Dickie is coming into town tonight, so soon. I hope his drive has been safe. He is coming to see our final project presentations (the object still undone) and is staying on my couch. He always visits at that time of year when I am precluded from being a good host. At least I washed the dishes yesterday while my computer was rendering an image. I hope my continuing work doesn’t keep him up tonight.

I massage my leg where I strained a muscle on Wednesday. I half fell while climbing my ice encrusted fire escape. The bruise on my shin doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as the strained muscle in my thigh which probably saved me from an even more bruising fall by catching all my weight and locking in place. I shall have to remember to take the inside stairs tonight.

I remember longingly the ghostly night trees left behind by the ice storm. Spider webs of black, woven and circling, cribbed ink lines caught in a shell of light. White light and gold, utilitarian streetlamps broken and refracted into the most glorious of stars, pure and potent. A million bits of black caught within a million white sparkles.

All these things and more surface in my mind, now deprived of the object of its relentless obsession. I find it interesting how my concentration on one thing has effected my perceptions over this past week. Each thing I remember now I remember experiencing with precision and clarity. It is as though the state of concentration once achieved is maintained even as the object of concentration is not. I look back now, during this quite moment, and think it has been a good week. Despite the hustle and the bustle, and the nagging suspicion I may not finish in time, my mind has been in a good place, focused and clear.

I realize the moments of past week, those thoughts and recollections, were not harshly cast aside, but simply let go. The clarity of experience comes from the refusal to analyze it to death, to overthink it and lay my own concepts upon it, to add it my storyline. Instead they were just moments, as they were by themselves. And they were and remain beautiful. It has been an inadvertant thing, surely not what the Buddha intended, but almost a kind of meditation in itself, my concentration. Yet, not without its own lesson, I think.

It reminds me of the lights in the night trees.

December 11, 2007

Dead Week

It's Dead Week. I leave this post as evidence, despite my college's best attempts, I am still alive.

I think.

December 04, 2007

Seeing the World Through Christian-Colored Glasses

I chanced up a something at the book store the other day, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t. The cover held the cross, om, laughing Buddha, star of David, and crescent moon. I flipped to the table of contents and frowned at the obvious biblical references. Chapter One: A Nation of Religious Illiterates, Chapter Two: Religion Matters, Chapter Three: Eden (What We Once Knew), Chapter Four: The Fall (How We Forgot), Chapter Five: Redemption (What to Do?), Chapter Six: A Dictionary of Religious Literacy, and finally the Appendix: Religious Literacy Quiz. I was expecting chapter headings more in keeping with the cover, concerning the various major world religions.

I flipped to the back to see if I could pass the quiz. Apparently I could since it only contained fifteen questions. One concerned Hinduism, two Islam, one Judaism, one Buddhism, and one on the First Amendment. The remaining ten were straight out of the Christian Bible (though parts of the Old Testament can be found in the Torah and Quran.)

Now, this is not a book review, I certainly did not read the entire thing. I skimmed the introduction which was plainly asserting that this is a Christian nation despite our constitutional verbiage and our toleration of other religions. The massive Christian majority makes it one. He speaks of the Dalai Lama like some kind of pop idol and the metaphor of a passing fad is not lost on me. So then, is it only important to be literate in the Christian religion? Apparently, Stephen Prothero thinks so. (Knowing the name of the Islamic book and holy month hardly qualify as Islamic literacy, but then neither does answering ten questions about the Bible, in my mind.)

I shake my head and put the book down. I am slightly appalled but really more sad. It is important, yes, to understand our Christian heritage so as to understand our history, the basis of our culture, and our possible future. But Prothero seems to forget that in that future, America is only a small country (population wise) in a predominantly non-Christian world. Mostly I am sad because he seems to lack a value for diversity of viewpoint, multiplicity of human thought, expression, culture, and spirituality.

I had hoped for better and am silently sad to see Buddhist symbol on the cover of such a book.